Jordan businessmen, officials go on trial in graft case

March 12 (Reuters) - Two dozen businessmen, a customs chief and an ex-minister went on trial for tax evasion and bribery at Jordan's state security court on Tuesday in the country's most high profile corruption case in years.

Prime Minister Omar al Razzaz put fighting graft high among his government's tasks after King Abdullah appointed him in June to defuse a crisis that saw some of the largest protests in years over unpopular IMF-guided economic policies and tax hikes.

The prosecution said chief suspect Owni Mutee and his 28 other accomplices had evaded paying 539 million dinars ($760 million) by bribing officials to dodge customs and taxes from a counterfeit cigarettes and tobacco production business. Among the charges facing all the defendants are "acts that endanger security of the society" and "endangering the economic resources of the country" under tough anti-terrorism laws.

They could face at least 15 years in prison, judicial sources say.

The defendants plead not guilty.

The prosecution said Mutee invested in multi million dollar factories inside the country's duty free zone and bribed officials to smuggle in and flood the local market with cheaper counterfeit cigarettes under top international brands.

State revenues from 70 percent taxes on cigarettes top $1.7 billion annually, according to industry experts.

The case is the largest since a major financial scam in 2008 exposed widespread embezzlement under a draconian "economic crimes" law.

Some Jordanians regard the trial with skepticism, saying it will fail to mollify anger over perceived rampant corruption among senior officials in a country whose economy has also been hit by regional conflict.

The government has failed to extradite Walid Kurdi, a businessman with connections to the royal palace, who as chairman of a phosphate firm was convicted in 2013 of embezzlement of millions of dollars and has since fled the country.

Activists and opposition figures say top officials should be put on trial for a loss of public funds that they say has worsened Jordan's economic woes and record $40 billion in public debt.

Defense lawyers accused the government of overblowing the case to win popularity amid weekly protests against government policies blamed for rising poverty and growing unemployment among youths.

"They want to win popularity after the summer protests," said Hussam Abu Ruman, a lawyer for Mutee.
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